BALTIMORE — Green is in Cecil County’s future after a state commission pre-approved a license Monday for a medical marijuana grow operation to be based in Warwick.
SunMed Growers LLC was one of just 15 licensees selected by the commission out of a pool of 145 grower applicants to receive one of the coveted license pre-approvals. SunMed is led by Jacob Van Wingerden, president of Tidal Creek Growers, an Earleville plant production company that sells specialty annual potted plants wholesale to Mid-Atlantic garden retailers.
“We were very, very, very excited. Our team worked very hard over the last year,” he said Monday night, noting it has been a long wait since they submitted an application last November. “We’re very anxious to be able to provide high-quality medicine for the residents of Maryland. That’s what this is all about.”
Van Wingerden, who started Tidal Creek Growers in 2002, is a third generation greenhouse grower, whose grandfather emigrated to America from Holland in the 1940s. Today, the Tidal Creek operation has grown to include a second facility in Davidsonville, outside the Annapolis area. Visitors to his Earleville operation can find rows upon rows of mums, marigolds, poinsettias, geraniums and more in heated greenhouse facilities. Between both facilities, Tidal Creek grows more than 8 million plants a year.
Van Wingerden said that his team’s agricultural background was the centerpiece of his application to the commission. SunMed, which includes Van Wingerden and three other growers who work for him, will likely assign one grower to oversee the medical marijuana cultivation while the others help run the business.
“The growing experience of the four of us was front and center in our application,” he said.
Growing the first crop of medical marijuana will be a new challenge for Van Wingerden though.
“I’ve never touched the stuff and I don’t plan to at least from a recreational standpoint,” he said with a laugh when asked if he had ever had prior experience growing marijuana. “But cannabis is a plant like any other plant, and we’re expert plant growers.”
Van Wingerden said he has made contact with growers in states where it had been legalized for medicinal or recreational use, though.
“That grower group is fairly small, so we talk and share with each other,” he said, noting it’s not uncommon in the greenhouse growing industry to venture into marijuana cultivation as states legalize its use in one form or another. “The reality is five years ago, nobody could grow this legally, so now that it’s becoming mainstream and more accepted, professional companies and growers are getting involved in the industry. It’s basically coming out of the basement, and it’s not the hippies doing it. That’s who we are: we’re professional growers. Growing is a science and one with low margins, so you have to find a process that works and adhere to it.”
While his garden plant operation is located in Earleville, Van Wingerden said the medical marijuana facility will be located in Warwick at a property that is under contract for purchase. The plan is to build a 50,000-square-foot, glass-topped concrete and steel facility, surrounded by an 8-foot, razor-wire-topped fence. A security staff will be manning the facility 24/7 as well, Van Wingerden said.
“It will be very off limits and the only people in that facility will be those authorized to be there,” he said.
Last summer, SunMed officials met with the Cecil County Council, Cecil County Executive Tari Moore and county department heads to discuss their plans.
“They asked some very good questions and even reached out to me after the fact with more questions,” Van Wingerden said.
On Tuesday, Moore said she was pleased that SunMed earned one of the licenses and believes their background and local ties helped their application. She and Van Wingerden talked Tuesday about facilitating what permits and approvals the company will need from the county to move forward as soon as possible.
Moore also noted that this announcement along with recent ones, such as Lidl’s investment in a regional headquarters here, the expansion of Warwick Mushroom Farm and the return of some previously lost C&S Wholesale Grocer jobs, has shaped up to be a positive summer in Cecil County from an economic development standpoint. The county executive credits recent efforts by her administration and the county council to invest in infrastructure upgrades as a reason why there is renewed interest in economic development in the county. Moore added that the commission’s approval of a medical marijuana grow license here signals that it sees Cecil County as a place prepared for such an operation.
“We’ve focused on building it and knowing that they will come,” she said. “So now we’re seeing the results of all that we’ve planted and cultivated.”
SunMed’s grow facility will create new jobs as well, although Van Wingerden said that he expects that their operation will start small as the state’s medical marijuana industry takes time to get started. At first, about 10 people will run the facility around the clock with plans to expand the operation as needed. He anticipates that it will be close to a year before the first crop of medical marijuana is harvested in Cecil County, as it will take at least six months to build the facility and three to four months to grow and harvest the first crop.
“If you look at similar markets like New York or Minnesota, it took about a year to really get started,” he said. “Not only are we trying to grow safe, effective medicine for Maryland patients, but we also want to be business savvy and make sure we’re sustainable and can turn a profit.”
Unlike seven of his fellow growers, however, Van Wingerden is not affiliated with any of the 15 processor licensees also approved on Monday. He said he hopes to work with all 15 processors to expand the market for his Cecil County product.
Growers will grow marijuana from seeds to the cultivated buds that become America’s most ubiquitous illegal narcotic. As a medicine, however, its active ingredients — tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and cannabidiol, or CBD — will be highly regulated by the state before it can be sold to dispensaries or processors.
Processors will manufacture a wide variety of cannabis-infused products containing high and low extracts of THC or CBD. These pharmaceutical-grade products will include oral forms such as oils, pills, capsules, tinctures, sublingual sprays and inhaled products as well as topical forms such as ointments, salves and transdermal patches.
Maryland received 145 grower applications, 124 processor applications and 811 dispensary license applications. The MMCC commissioned the Towson University Regional Economic Studies Institute to contract with third-party subject matter experts from around the United States to evaluate the applications using a double-blinded process. RESI assigned unique identifying numbers to each application prior to evaluation and review by subject matter experts and the commission.
Application content comprised text and supporting documents redacted of all identifying information such as individual or entity applicant names and locations. Once evaluated and scored by the subject matter experts, RESI compiled the scores and ranked the applications. The scored and ranked redacted grower and processor applications were then provided to the commission for review and final selection.
The locations of the growers and processors span 16 counties and Baltimore City, including Allegany, Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Cecil, Charles, Dorchester, Frederick, Garrett, Howard, Montgomery, Prince George’s, Queen Anne’s, Washington, Wicomico and Worcester. While the commission generally accepted the highest scores, the 14th and 15th highest grower applicants were deferred for two lower scoring applicants in order to spread the licenses over a wider geography.
While former Cecil County Sheriff and current Cecil County Detention Center Community Adult Rehabilitation Center director Barry Janney was attached to a Harford County grower applicant — True Health Chesapeake LLC — their application was not ultimately successful. Another grow operation that did express interest in locating in Cecil County — Freestate Wellness LLC led by businessman Cary Millstein — ultimately decided to locate in Howard County.
Those selected will still have to pass a second stage of approvals, including an extensive financial due diligence and background investigations of all those named in the original application and any other principals. Each entity that was issued a pre-approval will have one year from Monday to complete all necessary steps to obtain a formal license. These steps include completing regulatory requirements, raising capital, acquiring real estate, securing local zoning approvals, construction of facilities, installation of equipment and the hiring and training of staff.
The commission will review and vote on the dispensaries (two per state senatorial district and potentially 15 additional for growers who wish to be vertically integrated) with medicine tentatively becoming available by the summer of 2017.